Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Community Organizing and Urban Education VIII: Fracturing Across Lines of Race and Class

[To read the entire series, go here.]

In my limited experience in Milwaukee with MOVE--a congregational organizing group that work with the Gamaliel Foundation which operates nationally and internationally—the larger institutionalized community organizing groups have significant issues with race and class that they don’t deal with effectively. (Later I’ll talk about how intermediary organizations like Gamaliel work with local groups). From what I have read elsewhere, this reluctance to focus specifically on race and class in favor of more pragmatic and general visions of “self interest” and coalition building is a problem with mainline community organizing groups more generally. This has apparently led to the development of new groups outside of the larger national groups that deal more directly with issues of racial identity, nationalism etc.

In its early days, MOVE was primarily made up of inner-city churches and the participants were mostly people of color. Shortly before I joined, the group decided that if they were going to have enough power to really make a difference, they were going to need to expand their membership to include churches outside the central city. Many mostly white middle-class churches joined.

What happened then is probably pretty predictable. As the whites came in, the people of color began voting with their feet.

One key problem is that middle-class, white professionals have a fundamentally different discursive style than lower-income people of color. While this issue seems to be one more of class than of race, it is important to understand that being middle-class and black on the edge of the central city places one in a much more financially and culturally marginal position than is common among middle-class professionals, as Patillo-McCoy, among others, has pointed out. So even though, as I noted earlier, it’s true that most members of congregational organizing groups come from middle-class mainline churches, what it means to be middle class, and how that links to particular discursive and cultural practices is much more complex than this observation might indicate.

A couple of stories.

For a while I attended the mostly white and mostly upper-middle-class (in culture if not in $$) Unitarian church in the city, and we mobilized a number of Unitarians to attend a talking session with some local school-board members. A number of black churches also sent members, and participants of color significantly outnumbered the number of whites. This larger groups broke up into smaller dialogue groups to come up with issue to present to the whole meeting. As I walked around, I noted that nearly all of the groups ended up having a Unitarian as their note-taker and facilitator. So when the groups presented back, most of the presenters were whites. Afterwards, predictably, the whites wondered aloud why the people of color didn’t participate as much as the whites, and the whites complained that they didn’t want to take over.

This is an incredibly common outcome when priveliged whites and less priveliged people of color come together in dialogue. As Eric H. F. Law puts it in a wonderful little book, people with privelige assume that their voice ought to count, and just naturally jump in to get heard. People with less power are less likely to make that assumption. Then the powerful wonder, “why don’t ‘those people’ talk?” And the less powerful don’t feel welcomed and they don’t come back.

There is surprisingly little in the literature about how to deal with the inevitable power differentials that emerge when priveliged whites and less priveliged people of color come together in dialogue. Many solutions involve highly trained facilitators or intensive training, but community organizing groups are much too fluid and resource limited to allow this to happen in most cases. Law came up with a process that seems to work for groups engaged in cross-cultural dialogue, but it seems to me and to other organizers I’ve talked with to be too cubersome to work in action oriented settings like community organizing meetings.

The point is not that nothing works. Instead, I am beginning to think (and others better informed about this issue may correct me) that it may simply be too dificult to find procedures that will allow equal dialogue in such settings without prohibitive amounts of educational and facilitational superstructure. The fact is that even though I know all of this, I often find myself butting in and interrupting as the white male that I am. I have real trouble even training myself out of this.

There is some evidence from classrooms and elsewhere, however, that people with less power tend to feel more empowered if they are representatives of external groups. (Of course, this idea fits quite well with more general organizing perspectives on collective power). In MOVE. I have recommended a number of times that we try to recreate spaces where there aren’t many priveliged whites, where inner-city folks can build their own sense of collective identity and then send representatives to meetings with the surrounding white churches. I have heard that there are other examples of organizations with a “black caucus” or “inner-city caucus”, but I haven’t had time to seek them out. For a range of reasons, this hasn’t happened in MOVE.

Although I haven’t been to many large MOVE events recently, I remember a couple of years ago going to training meetings and noticing that the number of participants of color was falling quickly. At one point, I heard a powerful black pastor trying explain to a group of mostly whites why “his people” weren’t coming, which also involved a lecture about the different ways his community was structured, but it didn’t seem like others really heard what he was trying to say (and I’m sure I didn’t totally get it either).

This brings us back to the Gamaliel Foundation’s reluctance to deal with these issues directly. They apparently don’t want to “get into it.” In classic Alinsky form (although there is evidence that Alinsky was more savvy than some of his followers) they try to overcome these issues simply by finding common areas of interest that will allow different groups to come together. I vividly remember a meeting where the head of the Gamaliel Foundation stood in front of a large group of members berating us for our inability to get as many people out as MOVE had done in its early days. At no point did he point out that most of his audience was white, in contrast to the early days when almost everyone would have been black.


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